Miami restaurant review: After 15 years, Azul at the Mandarin Oriental is still maturing

Azul photos by Patrick Farrell pfarrell@miamiherald.com

It was 15 years ago this month when the elegant Mandarin Oriental Miami opened its doors on a gorgeous swath of the urban island known as Brickell Key. A month later, Azul ignited its stoves and quickly set the bar for Miami hotel fine dining. It was there that rising star chef Michelle Bernstein made a name for herself.

Five chefs de cuisine have come and gone, the most recent being William Crandall, who departed in May, leaving an empty spot that was filled this summer by Benjamin Murray.

At just 28 years old, Murray, with a television-ready smile and tattoo collection, shows promise and an energetic flair, plating compositions that are intricately stimulating and deftly technical. Flavorwise, not everything hits its mark as needed for a restaurant of this caliber and price point.

Azul is as pretty as ever, with lots of organic elements like stone and polished wood set beyond an open kitchen and wall of wine that make for a dramatic entrance. On our visits, the restaurant’s front door was locked; we had to knock to be let in. Most diners — hotel guests — come through the lobby entrance. 

Try to reserve one of the five tables on the terrace for a timeless Miami view of sea and sky. There, nothing can go wrong.

Meals start with tiny pops of flavor that are some of the tastiest bites we had. Amuse bouches like fried oyster with rice-wine vinegar powder and a rich aioli, or a fennel vichyssoise with a garlic chip and gelatin cubes, take over the palate like an umami detonation. Modernism at its bite-size best.

Bread service is traditional French, with a choice of three petite loaves. The baguette with its twirled tips is my favorite, and I don’t love the sweet brioche, especially with a red-pepper butter that also skews sweet.

Asian influence

Murray, whose mother is Japanese, has a penchant for infusing Asian flavors into western dishes, making him a good fit for the Mandarin and Azul. Upscale snacks — think eel, scallops and foie gras — are dollhouse-proportioned to showcase Murray’s creativity and talent. However, like most everything I ate here, these are overdone with sweet touches like glazes, lacquers, marmalades and caramel.

The cool-sounding buttered-popcorn polenta, a shot glass of grainy porridge, is too heavy on the cheese and then topped with sweet puffs of what tastes like carnival kettle corn. Similarly sweet is pork belly with caramel that includes dried Japanese peppers along with an imperceptibly fermented kohlrabi kimchi.

Appetizers are equally lively, like a lovely Alaskan king crab with umeboshi butter, slivers of crisp starfruit and Asian pear with a minty hit of Thai basil. A delightful shallot broth served cold suspends pert little curly-cue slices of slow-poached shrimp with pretty puffs of tart-sweet lime merengue and sweet potato cubes.

Bright jewels of crimson tuna are hidden at the bottom of a cereal bowl of airy, white foam that’s dotted with a bouquet of Lilliputian flowers, pickled red onions and cucumbers — a dish that’s prettier than it is satisfying.

The breakfast egg, a nearly raw version, is a cool mix of sweet and savory, including a smear of nduja, a spreadable and spicy salami from Calabria and bits of coffee floating in a parmesan foam that does not overpower.

This young chef knows how to handle a sous vide cooker like nobody’s business. A stunning, if skinny, Maine lobster can attest to that. The tender white tail and claws are beautifully arrayed with baby carrots caramelized until bronzed, swirls of buttery avocado and microgreens — but smothered in a sauce so sugary that it tastes like coconut pudding.

Exciting and exhausting

Foams? Check. Gels? Check. 

Squiggles. Infusions. Powders. Check, check, check. 

Murray outdoes himself with precise, borderline-precious food that is exciting but oftentimes exhausting. It seems that he could use an editor to pare down the excessive elements that occasionally lead to muddy flavors.

Short ribs, for example, are smothered in Jackson Pollock-like squirts and splashes in a palette of khaki, gray and black.

With food this complicated, it would help if the staff were as knowledgeable as they are enthusiastic. Instead, our servers stumbled on introductions and descriptions. “I’ll go check with the kitchen,” was the answer to most questions.

“Our menu is very local,” a waiter boasted. Not exactly. There’s turbot from the Pacific and lobster from Maine, and not a morsel of the halibut, scallops, oysters, octopus or crab is from nearby waters. You’d be hard-pressed to find a protein here that came from within 100 miles of a Florida zip code.

But much of Azul’s superfresh produce does come from South Florida farms, including beets, passionfruit, eggplant and radishes. 

In an ode to “simple is best,” halibut comes with a perfectly golden crust in a passionfruit broth as bright as sunshine. It is festooned with more flowers than I had at my wedding. Turbot, too, has a spot-on sear and rests on a smear of brown butter and is dotted with eraser-size cauliflower florets, toasty nibs of pistachio and a sharp salsa verde. 

Desserts, by Mandarin Oriental’s executive pastry chef Frédéric Monnet, also utilize lots of molecular tricks but are more restrained. A chocolate almond bar has the soft, chocolatey bite of a fine pastry with a crunchy, nutty element offset by a creamy scoop of housemade Catalan custard ice cream. 

A beautiful cheese course is another option to finish a meal. And selections, which include the finest French, Spanish, Welsh and domestic choices, are well paired with dessert wines.

A stunning international wine list with some outside-the-box finds, like Lebanese, Hungarian and Mexican bottles, can lead to some great discoveries. Azul’s wine director, Todd Phillips, recently departed for chef Linton Hopkins’ Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta. 

It is clear that chef Murray has mad skills, and Azul is still a pull-out-all-the-stops choice for a celebratory night on the town. It’s also clear that as the restaurant celebrates its 15th birthday, it still has some maturing left to do. 

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Victoria Pesce Elliott: @VictoriaPesceE

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